Conversations with my grandfather, Mulkh Raj from Kasur

Natasha Badhwar

I’ve been talking a lot to my grandfather this year. His name was Mulkh Raj — one who will rule over his nation. He was 24 years old in 1947 when India overthrew British rule to become a free country. My grandparents were already the parents of their first-born son, Trilok, who is my father.

Dadaji was employed in the Department of Posts all his life and had been working in a post office in Kasur in August 1947. The partition of India made the young Hindu family move to Zira in Ferozepur district. Kasur — their home and the final resting place of the mystic poet, Baba Bulle Shah — became a part of the new country of Pakistan.

Dadaji lived up to his nineties and passed on four years ago. Next to my parents, he was the third most influential adult in our family life. I remember Dadi and him visiting us in Ranchi when my father went abroad for long training stints as an engineer. He taught me the Gayatri Mantra before I learnt to read. He tried to institute a 5 pm family puja time while he was with us. I remember being restless to go out and play in the sand pit.

On our summer vacation sojourns, we visited my grandparents in Barnala, Ferozepur, Malerkotla, Phagwara and Jalandhar. We would travel to Faridkot, Fazilka, Makhu and other places to visit relatives. My brothers and I were identified as the visiting grandchildren of Postmaster Sahib and treated special by everyone we encountered. We bathed under hand pumps and cycled along canals to see the countryside. We learnt to peel sugarcane sticks with our mouth and chew till our faces dripped with sticky juice. We turned up our noses at the milky tea that smelt of buffaloes. Evenings with Dadaji meant story-time along with freshly roasted peanuts.

After he retired and my grandmother died in her middle age, Dadaji spent eight months a year with us in the cities we were growing up in. My father had planned my brothers’ careers in the way Indian parents do — his elder son would become a doctor and younger son an engineer. Papa didn’t predetermine my career path. It was Dadaji who had a vision for me.

“Neeru, you are very intelligent,” he would say to me twice a year. “You must prepare for the UPSC exams and then choose the Indian Revenue Service.” Dadaji explained that as a woman, I would need a job that did not involve frequent transfers. Simultaneously, I internalised that he had high expectations from me. Dadaji believed in me.

My grandfather was my personalised window to patriarchy, to the Hindu Right, as well as to the syncretic culture and heritage of the Punjab we belonged to. He read the Gita every day, but in Urdu. He would read out passages to my brothers and me to make us better human beings who had “control over the five senses”. He often asked me to read him mythological stories from Amar Chitra Katha comics in Hindi. Having gone to school in pre-Partition Punjab, Dadaji’s three languages were Punjabi, Urdu and English. He had never learnt to read Hindi formally.

Dadaji has been gone for four years but 2020 is the year that I crave for conversations with him. I do the next best thing. I talk to him as if he is there, visiting us and spending the pandemic months in my home.

I discuss the lockdown and subsequent hunger crisis and hear him criticise the short-sightedness of our government, that he himself may have voted for. He gives me the approval to leave my children behind safely and participate in relief distribution in the industrial areas around our home. I discuss the ugliness of Hindu supremacist ideology and the violent repression of minorities, Dalits, women and marginalised groups that it seeks to normalise. He shakes his head and makes a case for moderation. I ask him to explain the collective dumbing down of our society that feasts on fake news and manufactured outrage against film celebrities when farmers are protesting against farm reform Bills all over the country. I want to tell him the details of the Delhi Police’s sham investigation that seeks to criminalise peaceful anti-CAA protesters and victims of violence.

Dadaji was a benevolent patriarch. He would often argue for the need for a world order that codified caste, class and male supremacy. I would debate with him, showing him the redundancy of these hierarchies. He would recommend that I write about these things in my column and test the mood of the readers. He gave me the permission to move on beyond the value system that had sustained him. I need him by my side again today — to offer me the strength and wisdom to choose my battles. “Be strategic,” I can hear him say to me. “Fight back in ways that don’t deplete you. Rely on love and stories to guide you.”

The writer is an author and filmmaker

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